Mark Greene is impressed by J.K. Rowling’ s tale of love and sacrifice.
We have perhaps now got used to it but as cultural events go, there’s very little to match the launch of a Harry Potter book. It’s not simply that 2.6 million copies of the UK edition were sold in the first week, it was the palpable sense of expectation, the ubiquitous speculation about which characters would live and which would die, and the determination by so many people to get a copy as soon as possible and to read it as rapidly as possible. Indeed, while hundreds may turn up to watch stars arrive for a film premier in London’s Leicester Square, thousands of kids all across the land queued in droves, and often in fancy dress, outside bookshops counting down the seconds to midnight like revellers in Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve. Furthermore, the primary engine for this interest has not been a well-oiled publicity machine or a huge marketing budget or a Jesus-wasa- space-man controversy but simply the compelling nature of the stories themselves.
Indeed, Rowling’s primary achievement has been to create a set of characters and a narrative that has gripped a whole generation of children and indeed many an adult, and promises to carry on doing so. Furthermore, she has not only kindled an interest in reading in many an uninterested child, she has helped create a capacity to read long books. Whilst most books for 8 to 12-year-olds seem to be under 200 pages, and that with fairly large print, Potter 4 weighed in at 636, 5 at 766 , 6 at 606, and number 7 at 607 pages.
As for the final instalment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came early on Saturday morning, I read it (rapidly, avidly, and by Monday night), and it conquered. It is a wellconstructed, well-written, compelling and satisfying conclusion to what may well prove to be one of the greatest series of children’s books ever written.
Cauldrons of ControversyOf course, over the last decade Christian commentators have differed widely on the merits or otherwise of Rowling’s creation. Many argued that the books would kindle an unhealthy interest in real magic, and feed the already burgeoning interest in Wicca and the occult. Others were concerned that Rowling would ‘do a Pullman’, hook her readers with a gripping, and apparently ‘neutral’ story and then reel them into the boat of an acidic, propagandist, venomously anti-Christian atheism, as Pullman does in His Dark Materials series. Others wondered whether the relatively benign portrayal of magic of the early books would evolve into something much more sinister as the series progressed. Rowling however, has remained remarkably consistent in both her thematic focus and in the kind of magic she has chosen to portray. Yes, it does get more powerful as 11-year-olds turn into 17-year-olds but it does not, it seems to me at least, stray any closer to the dark side. Her spells are still primarily pseudo-Latin or witty wordplays and there is very little incantatory material or potentially harmful rituals to mimic. Magic in these books has remained a way of exploring the use and abuse of power, and, lest we forget, it is not usually Harry’s wizarding skills that have got him through.
In this final book, Rowling’s worldview blossoms, if not into an explicitly Christian view of the afterlife, certainly into one that looks a great deal more like it than the picture Pullman paints of souls evanescing, identity-less into the natural world. Death, we are clearly told, is not the final frontier. An afterlife beckons, and one that is peopled by the goodly friends and family of Harry’s past – his parents, Dumbledore, Sirius Black – and inhabited by at least one poor creature whose fate you wouldn’t want to share.
More significant than this is how Rowling develops the theme of the power of sacrificial love that underpins the whole series. It was after all Harry’s mother’s self-sacrificial love that protected him from Voldemort’s attack on him as an infant and it is precisely the power of love that Voldemort fails either to understand or to factor into his machinations. By contrast, Harry, like his mother, comes to the point where he is prepared to lay down his life for others. Not like a soldier who goes into battle knowing the risks but hoping for the best. No, in the end, Harry walks deliberately and clear-headedly into the enemy camp towards his own death – just as Aslan determined to walk into the wicked witch’s camp, just as Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.
Similarly, just as those who would save their lives must die, so it is through death that Harry is freed entirely from the influence of Voldemort. And rises to new life. Yes, really. His scar remains, like Jacob’s limp, as a reminder of the fierceness of the battle waged, but the scar no longer aches.
Ultimately, the primacy of love defeats the lust for power. And this is taken further as Harry declines to take possession of what is rightfully his – the wand of ultimate power. Some paths must not be trodden, some technologies not used, some weapons not developed, some rings not worn. It is quite the most startling moment in the book – does such a thing ever occur in ‘real life’, I wonder? How often do people set aside what is rightfully theirs for the sake of others?
Indeed, the echoes of Philippians 2 aside, one of the emerging keynotes of Harry’s character is his humility. He doesn’t think nearly as much of himself as others do and has developed a cool-headed view of his and others’ heroics. Take this exchange, for example, which takes place after Ron pulls off a remarkable feat. “You’ve sort of made up for it tonight,” said Harry. “Getting the sword. Finishing off the Horcrux. Saving my life.” “That makes me sound a lot cooler than I was,” Ron mumbled. “Stuff like that always sounds cooler than it really was,” said Harry. “I’ve been trying to tell you that for years.” It’s a brilliant insight into the dynamics of success and heroism. How easy it can be to forget how thin the line may have been between success and failure, between a business success and bankruptcy, between winning the Ashes and not (an umpire’s wrong decision), between life and death on the road – maybe half a second in my case – between life and death on a battlefield. And how easy then to lose perspective on the scale of our own contributions.
Sacrificial love is not the only theme that is developed further in this final book. The quasi-Aryan racism that marked Voldemort’s supporters towards the mudbloods, the muggles and the ‘lower species’ turns into active persecution as Voldemort takes political power and begins to cleanse the magical world of all ‘inferiors’. Ironically, this disdain for the impure and the ‘lower orders’ helps to precipitate his downfall. Indeed, on two occasions it is, unbeknownst to him, a house-elf who thwarts his plans, using the magic they are endowed with but of which he knows nothing. As Hermione puts it: ‘Of course, Voldemort would have considered the ways of house-elves far beneath his notice, just like all the pure-bloods who treat them like animals.’ (p161)
Rowling’s exploration of race, like so much in this book, is interestingly nuanced. So, for example, we are told how goblins regard ownership of a thing made by a goblin ultimately always belongs to the maker, even if is sold. On the death of the buyer it should be returned. Goblin treasure should be returned to goblins. A purchase is essentially only a loan. This may seem as incomprehensible to us as the European understanding of land ownership appeared to the American Indians but some aspects of other people’s cultures are like that, aren’t they?
Press for the truth?
If all this seems rather neat and goodie two shoes, overall the book is much more complex in its depiction of characters. The good are not quite as good as we all once thought, and the bad, at least some of them, not quite as awful. Harry’s cousin turns out to care rather more for him than we might have guessed and somehow Rowling makes us feel sorry for the Malfoys, or at least for Draco. And judgements and loyalties are tested deeply – and not always with predictable results. Not all that is in Slytherin slithers. Skilfully, Rowling connects this question of what people are really like, this question of truth with the media and publishing industries of the magical world. Can we trust the press? And what are we to make of revisionist biographies? In both cases Rowling deftly explores the tensions between commercial exploitation and the search and desire for truth. The book’s publication hot on the heels of the Campbell Diaries threw all this into sharp relief.
Topical too, is the way magic mimics our surveillance society as Voldemort devises an ingenious way to track those who oppose him – a ‘Trace’ is put on a particular word that is only likely to be used by those who oppose him. Similar indeed to the ways in which phone calls and cyber-communications are monitored by the intelligence agencies for mentions of particular words.
None of this would matter a jot if we didn’t care for the characters. And we do. And they grow, as you might expect, in emotional depth and complexity. Will Ron and Hermione make a pair and how will they pull it off? Will love triumph over expediency in the case of Harry and Ginny? Will the jealousies and insecurities of the three friends be exploited by Voldemort? Rowling is not prone to engage in long perorations on her characters’ emotions, but there are moments of exquisite observation. Here for example is how she describes Harry after Ron returns after a dramatic escape: ‘Hermione was watching Ron fret over the fate of the Cattermoles, and there was such tenderness in her expression that Harry felt almost as if he had surprised her in the act of kissing him.’
Finally, the world, magical and muggle, is set to rights. And as we take our leave of the trinamic trio and their friends, Rowling reminds us one last time of the attribute that underpins her view of human nature – we get to choose, we have free will. Harry may have lost all his
mentors – father, Sirius, Dumbledore – but he doesn’t forget their lessons. Yes, there are forces out there – for good and ill. Yes, there are prophecies. Yes, we have dispositions but, as Harry learned when he first went up to Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat takes our preferences into consideration. He could have been in Slytherin or Gryffindor, not, as we come to learn, that all that is Slytherin is sly. Still, he chose Gryffindor. He chose courage, chivalry, love, self-sacrifice. He chose death – for the greater good. We could all do worse.
Mark Greene is the executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.